Panel examines Greek stereotyping

by Rebecca Cress | 11/19/08 5:15am

The College's Greek organizations should strive to make all students comfortable at social events, regardless of perceived stereotypes, students said in a panel held at Beta Alpha Omega fraternity, formerly Beta Theta Pi, on Tuesday night. The event, titled "Branded," aimed to addressed the ways in which stereotypes inform social interactions at Dartmouth, and panelists focused primarily on labeling within the Greek community.

The panel featured Marika Austin '09, Anna Bofa '09, Xavier Engle '09, Rob Pritchard '09, Peter Rothbard '09, Kristen Rounds '09, Amy Spicer '09 and Andrew von Kuhn '09, and was moderated by Sarah Crnkovich '09.

The panelists focused almost exclusively on Greek organizations in their discussion of social spaces on campus. Because of Dartmouth's relative isolation, Pritchard said, Greek houses are necessarily the predominant social spaces on campus.

One audience member questioned whether the panel was focused on what she said was the predominant issue surrounding social space on campus -- rather than asking whether students feel comfortable in social spaces and what could or should be done about it, she said, students should ask whether comfort in any social space is a reasonable expectation and if organizations have a responsibility to make students feel comfortable.

Greek organizations have an obligation to make all students welcome when they host events open to the entire campus, the panelists said. Pritchard, a member of Chi Heorot fraternity, framed the issue as a matter of safety, saying Greek organizations at the very least must guarantee students' physical and emotional safety.

"If you walk into a basement and you feel threatened in any way, that's not okay," Pritchard said.

While organizations may not technically be responsible for their guests' comfort, Austin said, human decency should be enough to compel organizations to act graciously.

"If you want to perpetuate stereotypes of unfriendliness to everyone, you can," she said. "But why the f--- would you?"

One factor that determines the comfort of guests in a house is the stereotype of the house itself, Pritchard said. The stereotypes associated with that house remind students of their own perceived labels, he added.

Not all of these labels are inherently negative, the panelists said, as they can be a useful shorthand for referencing a person. Panelists noted that social labels are not unique to Dartmouth, so individuals should take as much control over their own labels as they can.

"I can say I'm proud of most of the labels I have, and if you have a label you're not proud of, do what you can to change it," Rothbard said.

With the exception of race and ethnicity, "you are what you do," Pritchard said.

Von Kuhn, Beta's president, ticked off a list of stereotypes that could be used to describe himself -- Beta, football, "always wears an orange hat," Southern -- but said he was generally accepting of the person he projects himself to be. It can be dangerous to judge a person based on those characteristics, he said, agreeing that people should form their opinions based on what others do.

The campus community has made great strides in fostering comfort in social spaces this fall, Spicer said, specifically mentioning a "Ladies Night" party hosted by Heorot and a dry dance party at Beta.

"I remember thinking, 'This feels different to me,'" she said.

Spicer, a member of Delta Delta Delta sorority, and von Kuhn illustrated ways that students could be made to feel more comfortable in Greek social spaces. Spicer pointed to Tri-Delt's inclusivity chair, whose role is to coordinate events with other organizations. While alcohol and weekend parties have a definite role in Greek life, von Kuhn said, houses should also sponsor dry events.

The Greek system itself can be uncomfortable for minority students, Bofa said. Some black students are unaffiliated not because they actively chose to be so, she said, but because no one ever reached out to them to say joining a Greek organization would even be an option. By dividing themselves into these groups, students close themselves off from whole worlds, she said.

But being unaffiliated does not automatically cause a person to feel less comfortable on campus than his or her Greek-affiliated peers, according to Engle. As a member of the Dartmouth Outing Club, Engle said he generally feels comfortable in all social spaces because students associate him with an organization that gives an early positive impression during DOC Freshman Trips.

To Austin, unaffiliation creates both opportunities and discomfort.

Theoretically, Austin said, she can go wherever she wants because she belongs to no one place more than to any other. At the same time, she often feels as though she is a guest in someone else's space, she added.